As a kid and teen, I was subjected to a lot of inspirational sports movies that involved a too much toxic masculinity and male characters figuring out the true meaning of teamwork. In contrast, it seemed like every movie piece of media about female athletes involved pitting women against each other. It made me not like sports stories very much, but I am happy to say that lately my feelings have shifted.
The past two years have been an incredible time for YA books about girls in sports, whether they’re solo athletes or working together with a team, and I am here for all of the fierce, feminist, and powerful girls claiming their space and kicking butt — literally and figuratively. Kelly has done a great job highlighting last year’s releases in Hey YA, and I had the joy of talking to YA author Emma Kress about her favorite sports books recently. I wanted to take it a step further and highlight some of my personal favorites and most anticipated reads of late 2020 and 2021! These books look at team sports that might be familiar to us, and they go beyond to include representation of sports that don’t get as much time in the limelight. They’ve made a sports fan out of me!
The Knockout by Sajni Patel
Kareena Thakkar is on the brink of achieving her wildest dreams. She’s been competing in Muay Thai for years, and what started as an outlet to relieve stress after her dad’s terminal illness diagnosis has turned into her passion. Now, she’s been invited to the U.S. Muay Thai Open, and if she wins, she may very well be headed to the Olympics. But she’s got a few challenges ahead — the financial cost is too much for her family, and her father’s health is failing. Her family has been alienated from their Indian community, and Kareena’s fighting is considered unladylike. And now, in order to keep her grades up, Kareena has agreed to tutor Amit Patel, who might be the most perfect Indian boy she’s ever met…and she happens to be falling for him. This is a powerful book about agency, taking pride in who you are and your abilities, and not letting anyone dictate your life. It also doesn’t shy away from the intensity of training and the mental challenges Kareena faces as an elite athlete.
She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen
Scottie is devastated when her girlfriend Tally breaks up with her and transfers to a “better” school the next town over. Now, Scottie and Tally are rivals on the basketball court, and it’s messing with her head. When a game goes poorly for Scottie, she accidentally gets in a fender bender with Irene Abraham, her school’s chilly cheerleading captain. Forced to carpool until Irene’s car is repaired, Scottie and Irene hatch up a fake dating scheme to make Tally jealous…but it backfires big time when both of them catch feelings! I loved how this book talks about the nuances of unhealthy vs. healthy relationships, and how Quindlen explores Irene’s struggles to be recognized as an athlete in her chosen sport.
Dangerous Play by Emma Kress
Zoe has a plan: train hard, win the State Championship in field hockey, score a scholarship, and get the hell out of her hometown. Not in the plan? Getting assaulted at a party. Now, Zoe has a new plan that involves teaming up with her ride or die co-captain Ava and their teammates to serve out their own brand of vigilante justice in their town, so no girl ever has to feel what Zoe feels in the aftermath of her assault. But when a night of vigilante justice goes sideways, Zoe finds that everything she wants is in jeopardy, including her beloved friends. This is a powerful book that’s as much about the love of a sport as it is about the deep bonds that form between female teammates.
In the Same Boat by Holly Green
Everyone in Sadie’s family has competed in and finished the Texas River Odyssey, a 265-mile boat race across three days. Sadie is excited to paddle her first race, but when she makes a mistake at a crucial moment, she’s forced to tap out. A year later, her dad still can’t look her in the eye and Sadie is determined to make this year different. But when her brother, her partner, bails on her at the last minute, Sadie is forced to team up with her one-time friend and now rival, Cully, in order to compete in the race. As they push themselves to their limits, Sadie and Cully will have to confront the circumstances that ended their friendship, their families’ bitter rivalry, and what kind of people this race asks them to be. The majority of the book is set during the three-day race, making this book a tense but emotionally powerful read.
Bruised by Tanya Boteju
Daya Wijesinghe doesn’t mind bruises. They’re an immediate pain that distract her from the deeper grief she feels after losing her parents in a terrible accident, one that she survived. So Daya is attracted to roller derby: It’s an intensely physical sport and the opportunities for bruises are boundless. But the sport is also fairly demanding when it comes to understanding the rules and strategy, and even though Daya doesn’t mind the bruises, she finds learning how to be a team player difficult. But her new teammates are big-hearted and supportive, and in order to be fully present on the team, they’ll push Daya to confront her biggest hurt of all.
Cheer Up: Love and Pom-Poms by Crystal Frasier and Val Wise, with Oscar Jupiter
Annie is a sarcastic, fast-talking lesbian whose antisocial tendencies have her principal and her mom worried. When they strongly suggest that she find an extracurricular and some friends, Annie is compelled to try out for the cheer team. Not normally her thing, but doing so has her connecting with Beatrice, the cheer captain and the school’s only openly trans girl. Annie and BeBe share a connection that starts out as friendship, bonding over extra training sessions, but soon deepens into more. All the while, BeBe faces overprotective parents and performative allyship within the cheer team, and she must learn how to stand up for herself with Annie’s support.
Like Other Girls by Britta Lundin
When Mara is kicked off the basketball team for a fight that she’s only partially at fault for, she’s desperate to find a new sport that will prove she can be a team player. She proposes football. After all, her brother plays and she’s always loved the sport. But joining the football team and being a natural at it only seems to exaggerate all of the ways that she’s not like other girls — namely, she’s queer and not a feminine girl. As she reckons with the fall out of being on the football team in a small Oregon town, things get complicated when more girls join the team with Mara, including her crush and the rival who got her kicked off the basketball team in the first place.
A Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong
In this gorgeous graphic novel, filled with saturated hues and dreamy illustrations, two girls named Ren and Luna strike up a friendship on the basketball court, only for Luna to leave abruptly and sever all contact. Time passes and Ren doesn’t forget her friend, but when Luna comes back to town and wants to pick up where they left off, Ren is cautious. She’s got a lot on her plate, including the newly formed women’s basketball team and a tough home life. But when Luna joins the team, the girls find their relationship evolving once more and Ren can no longer leave Luna on the court. But it turns out that their season will challenge them all in ways they could never imagine.
Be sure to check out Hey YA for more great YA book recommendations!